“Okay,” I say.
“But there are things that are out of our control that we haven’t told you about, and it’s time we were honest with you,” he says. His face is grave, and so sad that I can’t bear it.
I run through the reasons they might be acting so strangely. Did Dad lose his job? Is he sick? “You’re scaring me, Daddy.”
“It’s not what you think. I’m not sick and neither is your mom.”
He knows me so well. “So what’s going on, then?” I ask, my breath catching in my throat. Whatever it is, it’s bad.
“You can’t accept this scholarship. I’m so sorry,” he says, putting his hand over mine to comfort me. Mom is about to say something but he hushes her.
“But why not?” I ask, stunned.
“Because you don’t have a green card, Jasmine. None of us do. And that means you’re not eligible for this award.”
“I don’t have a green card? I don’t understand. Of course I do. We all do, don’t we?” It’s like my dad is talking nonsense.
He puffs out his cheeks. “When we first moved here, we had work visas that allowed Mom and me to work for Tito Sonny’s export business, remember that?”
I nod. We called him Uncle—Tito—even though we’re not related. Tito Sonny is a friend of the family who gave my parents jobs working in his discount store, stocking shelves and keeping inventory. He imported Chinese and Filipino items and sold them to the expat community. The items were cheap knickknacks—velvet paintings of Jesus, cheesy 3-D paintings of waterfalls, ceramic Buddhas, that sort of thing.
“But that store closed years ago and Tito Sonny went back to the Philippines,” I say, remembering now.
“Exactly. When the store closed, our work visas expired. Tito Sonny thought he would be able to sponsor us for green cards, but he couldn’t even sustain the business. We thought it would be easy to find other jobs and new visas, but that hasn’t been the case.”
I vaguely remember a few years ago when my parents were always tense, right after the store closed. There were a few months when neither of them worked. I thought we were just worried about money back then. I didn’t know they were also worried about being able to stay here legally.
“So what does that mean?” I ask, still stunned. “We really don’t have green cards?” The news is starting to sink in.
“We never did, just temporary work visas. Right now we don’t have any proof of legal residency. That’s why we stopped visiting the Philippines. We didn’t want to get trapped there. Not after building a new life here. We couldn’t take away your home. We didn’t think you would have to prove legal status for a college scholarship. We were hoping...”
“So wait. What are you saying? I’m not legal? We’re not in America legally? Oh my God.”
Dad nods and looks like he’s about to cry, which makes me want to cry too.
“But if I’m not legal, how could I go to school all these years? How can any of us go to school?”
“Ma and I didn’t choose California only for the palm trees and sunshine. We came here because it’s easier on immigrants generally. Schools can’t report undocumented students, and they don’t do a lot of workplace raids.”
“But how do you guys work?”
“We have fake papers. The hospital and the bus company don’t sponsor work visas, not for the kind of jobs we do.” Unskilled jobs, they mean. Menial jobs.
“What...” I feel tears welling in my eyes. Why didn’t they tell me earlier? Did they not trust me? “Please tell me you’re joking.” I just can’t accept this. This can’t be the truth.
“No, we’re not joking, Jasmine,” Dad says. “We thought a college scholarship would solve everything for you, for our kids. We didn’t know most of the grants and loans are for citizens or green-card holders.”
So that’s why the two of them had been sort of muted lately when I kept blabbing on about college and financial aid forms. I’d tried not to think about it too much, assuming they were just busy.
“We never wanted this for you. We’re so sorry. But you’re a smart girl,” Mom says, trying to touch my hand. “You’ll find a way, neneng.”
I pull away. I know they tried their best, but their best isn’t enough in this case. This is my future, what I’ve worked so hard for, and I’m furious. “No! I can’t! There isn’t any other way if I don’t have a green card. Getting this scholarship was my way!”
“Stop!” Dad isn’t crying anymore. He slams his open hand against the table. “You should consider yourself lucky. If someone finds out our papers are fake, our entire family could be deported. Your mother’s already struggling with her supervisor asking questions at the hospital. If all of us aren’t careful, our luck will run out.”
Deported? Oh my God. I didn’t even think of that. It’s not just about not being able to go to college. We might lose our entire life here. The cold that’s settled around my body turns to ice. There’s no way I can go back to live in the Philippines. I can barely speak Tagalog. My life is here. In America.
I grab the letter away from them and scan the application. “But why can’t I accept the scholarship money? We have papers, you said. I’ll just use the fake ones. I don’t care.”
“No, absolutely not,” Dad says. “You’d be lying to the government. To the president of the United States.”
“I seriously doubt the president will personally be looking at my application...”
“It doesn’t matter, Jas. We have to be careful. If you get caught, are you going to go back to Manila by yourself?”
“So what was the point of me studying so hard, then? If I’m not eligible for loans or a grant, I won’t even be able to go to college. Everything I’ve worked for is totally wasted.” I’ve given up so much to be the best, to be number one. I’ve never had any fun outside of school. Sweet sixteen and never been kissed? I’m seventeen now.
Mom looks down at her lap. Her frustration has been replaced by a pained expression. It’s a face that I’ve rarely seen on her. “We were hoping something would come through—the latest immigration reform bill maybe.” She puts her head in her hands. “Or maybe you can go to school in the Philippines.”
Anger keeps working up inside me until I can’t stop the rush of words coming from my mouth. “No! No way! I don’t want to go to the Philippines! It’s your home. Not mine. You’re always talking about taking advantage of opportunities here. But haven’t you heard? There aren’t any for illegal immigrants.”
Rage radiates from my chest near where I’d held the letter so close to my heart. I’m shaking. How could my parents hide this from me for so long? How could they bury their heads and just expect everything to turn out for the best? If they had told me earlier, I could have gotten help. I could have done something.
I’m American. We’re resourceful, aren’t we?
Mom has started weeping quietly. Dad seems shocked at my yelling. I know I’ve pushed it too far, but I can’t help the words ripping from my tongue.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I yell. “I can’t believe you guys kept this from us for so long!” My knees are locked too tight. I feel dizzy. I just talked back to my parents.
“Jasmine!” Dad stands from his chair and reaches to steady me.
It feels like there’s no ground beneath me, like everything I’ve ever done has been a lie. Like Los Angeles has never really been my home. I’m breaking apart, shattering. Who am I? Where do I belong?
I’m not American. I’m not a legal resident. I don’t even have a green card.
I’m nothing. Nobody.
There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.
FRIDAY NIGHT. Our football team lost again, but we cheered them on anyway. We change out of our cheer clothes at Kayla’s. She’s excited and nervous, bouncing up and down as she curls her lashes and puts on her lipstick. I’m edgy too, but I’m not ready to tell her what my parents told me the other day. I’m too embarrassed, and if I don’t tell anyone, maybe it won’t be true. To be honest, I just want to forget about it for a night. Just thinking about it makes my head hurt.
Royce and I have been texting a little, and the other day he sent me a friend request on Snapchat and on Facebook. I accepted both. He hasn’t posted a new story on Snapchat, so I scroll through his FB feed again, impressed and annoyed at the same time. There are all these photos of him skiing in Mammoth with friends and boating in Newport with his family. When he smiles, his teeth are blindingly white, like an actor in a commercial. He’s way too handsome to be any good for anyone. Especially me.